All but a few states require prospective teachers to take licensing exams. Those exams -- as well as the sometimes-dismal scores -- are stirring up trouble in some states, though. Do the tests help raise the quality of classroom teachers, or is there little correlation between test results and teacher competence? Education World explores the politically polarized issue of teacher testing.
Many states already require prospective teachers to pass licensing exams. When 59 percent of the prospective teachers in Massachusetts failed that state's exam, however, other states, finding many aspects of such testing troubling, began to wonder just how well the tests themselves measure up. Are such tests a wise move to ensure that new teachers meet minimal academic standards, or are they a barrier that will drive away or eliminate a disproportionate number of competent candidates?
"On the question of whether higher standards will drive prospective teachers away, I think not -- not, at least, the people that we want to become teachers," Kati Haycock told Education World. She is the director of Education Trust, a non-profit organization that advocates for poor and minority students, "Sure, it may discourage those who are academically weak. Folks who are academically weak shouldn't be teaching in the first place, though."
A 1998 Education Trust study found that teacher quality was the single most-important factor in student achievement. In North Carolina, Education Trust researchers predicted the number of students who passed the state's competency test would rise by 5 percent if the passing score on the licensing exam for teachers was raised 1 percent.
"It is critically important to students that their teachers have strong backgrounds in the subject areas they are teaching," Haycock told Education World. "Assessing the content mastery of prospective teachers is about the only way to get a fix on whether that knowledge is adequate."
COMPLICATING THE TEACHER SHORTAGE
Testing teachers has many advocates and, on the surface, the advantages seem obvious. Over the next five years, however, the United States will need approximately 200,000 additional teachers per year -- and only about 110,000 potential teachers graduate yearly. Many school districts are already struggling to find sufficient staff.
If we modify standards on teacher tests even a little, we could lose as much as one-quarter of the candidate pool, with differential impact on different demographic groups, Drew Gitomer told Education World. Vice president of research with Educational Testing Service, he pointed out that as the student body becomes more heterogeneous, the teaching population becomes increasingly homogenous.
"What begins as an overwhelmingly white and female group of candidates seeking teacher licensure becomes even more homogenous as a result of licensure testing," said Gitomer.
DIVERSIFYING THE DEMOGRAPHICS
In the 1980s, a large percentage of African American students who graduated from schools of education failed the Alabama licensing exam and filed a federal race-discrimination suit. They felt the exam was improperly validated and unfairly discriminatory. Recent attempts to test teachers in Alabama also led to litigation.
Disproportionately few African Americans or Hispanics choose careers in education. Although about one-third of our nation's students belong to minority groups, Gitomer estimates only about 10 to 15 percent of the pool of teacher-candidates are African American or Hispanic.
When Andrew Latham, Robert Ziomek, and Gitomer studied the ethnicity of the approximately 200,000 teacher candidates who took the Praxis I or Praxis II exams between 1995 and 1997, they found that only 11 percent of the candidates in the pool were African American and 2 percent Hispanic. Of those taking the Praxis II exam, only 7 percent were African American. Their research, What the Tests Tell Us About New Teachers, underscored the disparity between the ethnicity of teacher candidates and the ethnicity of the K-12 student population.
Test conditions such as those in Massachusetts do nothing to entice new candidates to the field or expand the diversity of the pool. Some of the prospective teachers who failed the eight-hour exam the first year it was required included candidates with doctorates from prestigious schools. Although many questioned the administration, reliability, and validity of a test developed so quickly that adequate pilot-testing was not possible, Speaker of the House Thomas M. Finneran called those who failed "idiots."
ARE MANY PROSPECTIVE TEACHERS 'IDIOTS'?
Researcher Drew Gitomer studied the SAT and ACT scores of teacher-candidates who took the Praxis I and Praxis II tests for certification. Although the scores of prospective elementary teachers lagged, he told Education World, "the standardized test scores for teachers seeking subject-specific licensure -- for example, mathematics and social studies -- were as good as or higher than the standardized test scores of all college graduates."
Although salaries were not comparable, Gitomer said that ETS researchers found those who actually became teachers scored at levels comparable to others with similar levels of education. They performed about the same as lawyers, marketing professionals, and social workers.
"Setting the bar high is not the culprit in driving good candidates away from teaching," NEA spokesperson Kathleen Lyons told Education World. "The lack of respect shown to teachers in their professional lives is a far more sinister problem."
Licensing exams vary widely from state to state. The disparate expectations of even basic issues cause many problems. Few educators agree on what knowledge prospective teachers should possess. One straight-A student from North Carolina failed the licensing exam because he had never studied Asian history, which was covered extensively on the test. Some states include material not universally covered in education curriculums; in other states, the exams are just too easy.
The Praxis I licensure exam for elementary teachers, which is used in numerous states, tests at a tenth-grade level. The level for secondary teachers is only a little higher, according to Kati Haycock. We're granting licenses to teachers for performances that would be unacceptable for their students. In Oregon, prospective math teachers need to score 65 percent to pass. In Georgia, 46 percent will do. The cutoff scores in some states are so low that a candidate could answer fewer than half the questions correctly and still pass.
WHAT DOES TEACHER TESTING REALLY ACCOMPLISH?
Some people question the wisdom of using a single test as the sole measure of a teacher's ability, even tests that are well designed and academically rigorous. "Actual performance counts more than ability to take paper and pencil tests," St. Olaf College (Minnesota) professor Lynn Arthur Steen told Education World. Steen consulted on an Education Trust study of teacher testing. "They should never be used as the sole instrument. Indeed, in most instances, they should be a minor part of evaluation."
"For the most part," David Marshak, of Seattle University, told Education World, "multiple-choice tests will not produce valid assessments of teacher competence. They won't tell us anything about teachers' caring and commitment. All they will do is cost money, waste time, and cover the backsides of politicians."
Licensure testing does play a role in shaping the prospective teaching pool. It eliminates many candidates with the lowest standardized test scores and college grades, but "improving the academic quality of those seeking licensure," Drew Gitomer told Education World, "will require significant attention to recruitment, compensation, and training. Simply raising licensure requirements without addressing these other issues will surely lead to disappointment and inequity."
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